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Saving Perry – a Santa Clara County single father fights for a better future

By Sarah Scheenstra | 16 Nov 2010

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After struggling with substance abuse and homelessness, Perry Myrick rehabbed and earned custody of his 1-year-old son. (Photo: Sarah Scheenstra)

Perry Myrick Jr. has four teeth on the bottom of his mouth and two teeth on the top. He giggles frequently, has a hearty appetite and especially likes Gerber squash and sweet potatoes. He has a lazy right eye that may need corrective surgery when he is older. For now, he just looks like he is always winking. He is 13 months old.

Perry Myrick Sr. is 48 years old. His own lazy eye droops now only when he’s tired. He weighs 248 pounds, shares his son’s appetite, and likes to cook steak and spaghetti. He drives a 2001 Grand Cherokee jeep and loves watching CNN. He is black and wears an earring because the mother of his son once thought that it would be “hip, slick and cool.” But he’s thinking about getting rid of it because “that’s not me.” He is a veteran of the United States Army.

After leaving the Army in 1985, Myrick struggled with substance abuse and went through 11 or 12—he can’t quite remember—recovery programs, the most recent of which, in 2005, began a five year sober streak he still maintains today.

Eight months ago, almost exactly 25 years since he left the military, and five years since he started winning against his addictions, Myrick found himself engaged in a new kind of battle: a fight for his son.

Perry Jr.’s mother, whose name is withheld to protect her privacy, had a history of mental health problems. Custody records mention that she had been hospitalized for psychiatric disorders several times and refer to diagnoses of bipolar and schizo-effective disorders, two mental conditions characterized by episodes of depression. Soon after Perry Jr. was born, she stopped seeing her psychiatrist and ceased taking medication to treat schizophrenia.

Myrick urged her to get help.

Instead, she asked him to move out and began refusing his requests to visit his son.

When he did see Perry Jr., Myrick noticed that his son was losing a significant amount of weight. Concerned for his baby’s safety and about his ex-girlfriend’s mental instability, Myrick called the Milpitas Police Department and Child Protective Services (CPS).

“There’s a process,” he was told, and, despite his persistent calls, he says it took at least a week for the Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) to do their first welfare check and then to finally intervene and get Perry Jr. to the hospital.

Perry Jr.’s diagnosis was “failure to thrive” and he ranked in less than the first percentile for his weight and age. He weighed just 10 pounds – just two pounds more than he’d weighed at birth, nearly four months earlier.

“The people from the CPS department told me, if I didn’t intervene, if I hadn’t been so persistent with calling the Milpitas police department about going to do a welfare check (…) ‘your son would have expired.’” Myrick said when he recounted the story. A disposition report later filed by DFCS said it could be argued that, “without the intervention of the father and DFCS, Perry Jr. would not be alive today.”

Myrick spent every moment possible with Perry Jr. at the hospital. But early on, a nurse took him aside. They appreciated his attentiveness to his son, she said, but Perry Jr. likely wouldn’t go home with him. She explained that Social Services would be talking with him.

“There’s a process,” Myrick heard again. This process involved numerous questions, a home visit, fingerprinting, a drug test and a background check.

“I’m goin’ on the premise: I’m his dad. You just need to give me my son,” Myrick said later.

Myrick never knew his own father, a U.S. Army command sergeant major who had had an affair with Myrick’s mother in the early 1960’s. Myrick’s mother died when he was 8, and he was raised by a maternal aunt in California who had her hands full with him. He drank and partied, and, at one point, tried to grow pot in the closet after reading a magazine article that told him how.

Myrick enlisted with the Army after being fired for drinking at his job at a 7-Eleven and receiving an ultimatum from his aunt: either find another job and straighten up or move out, she told him.

A week after enlisting, Myrick left for basic training in Georgia. It was 1982, and Myrick was 19.

Although something of a whim, the decision was also influenced by the man Myrick thought of as an uncle, Verde Van Reed, a military man himself with an impressive collection of medals. He spent time with Myrick on weekends after his mother died.

“I wanted to be like him,” Myrick recalls. Last year, shortly after Perry Jr. was born, Myrick found out that Reed was actually his father. He died when Myrick was in his mid-twenties, and, for reasons of his own, never told Myrick himself.

After three years in the Army, Myrick decided not to reenlist. When readjustment to civilian life proved difficult and he couldn’t find a job, he turned increasingly to alcohol and drugs. Over the next 20 years, he went in and out of rehab programs and lost job after job due to relapses.

Five years ago, Myrick emerged from a 37-day treatment program with the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Palo Alto Healthcare system ready to make another fresh start. He began volunteering with the Palo Alto Downtown Streets Team (DST), an organization established in 2005 to clean up the city’s dirty streets and simultaneously provide jobs for the homeless.

Myrick currently delivers fresh laundry at the VA Hospital, but he hopes to be promoted to job that lets him interact more with veterans. (Photo: Sarah Scheenstra)

For the next 2 ½ months, Myrick worked with a dustpan and broom and took advantage of the extra resources the team offered him – things like résumé assistance and mock interviews.

His efforts and the help he received paid off, and Myrick landed a position with a janitorial provider at Fisher House, a home adjacent to the VA Hospital where service members’ families can stay free of charge.

Since his own Army days, Myrick had wanted to work closely with veterans and his involvement with Fisher House stretched beyond his job description. When asked about his responsibilities, he includes “housekeeping,” “janitorial [work],” and “being there for the families.”

“When people came here, they really remembered him,” recalls Fisher House Manager Tram Le-Nguyen.

Indeed, Myrick received numerous notes of thanks and appreciation during his time as a custodial manager at Fisher House.

“No words could express the kind of help you [have] given me and my family,” one note said.

“Thank you for being so kind and caring,” another read.

From another: “I cannot thank you enough for just being you and helping this very stressful time in my life let up some.”

A “Thousand thanks!” said another, “”It was very nice to see every morning a smiley & friendly and & so helpful person like you!!! Thank you so much!!!”

Until recently, the cards and notes hung on a wall at Fisher House; Myrick called it his “wall of fame.”

This past summer, Myrick became a full-time VA employee as a housekeeping aid in the laundry department of the hospital. His new position offers benefits but he misses Fisher House and the personal interactions he had there with veterans and their families.

As he makes his morning deliveries of linens and fitted sheets for the hospital, however, Myrick smiles and speaks with those he passes. “I want to say ‘Hi,’ ‘Good morning,’ ‘How you doin’?’’” he says, “[I] try to keep a smile on my face.”

Although the hospital is wrought with physical and emotional pain, Myrick says it gives him hope. It keeps him connected to where he once was: It wasn’t so long ago—just before he entered his last rehab program five years ago, that he didn’t think there was hope, Myrick says.

Fortunately, in Myrick’s darkest hour, another struggling veteran and addict, Kenneth Pierre, pushed him to get help in 2005. “He encouraged and kept on me (…) to stand up and take another step,” Myrick recalls.

Now, every day, Perry wears a picture of Perry Jr. pinned on his blue work shirt, close to his heart. It’s another reminder of hope.

When Perry Jr. was ready to leave the hospital last January, he was not released to his father, but to foster care. When Myrick told the story, he said “foster care” slowly, emphasizing each word in turn, his voice still defeated even all of these months later. At that point, Social Services still had not interviewed Myrick, seen his house, or completed his background check. “I hadn’t even actually talked to the social worker who has my case,” Myrick remembers.

The social worker finally set up an appointment, and Myrick passed the final hurdles; he got his son back, provisionally, just three days after Perry Jr. went into foster care.

But the court was reluctant to give him full custody. In addition to his history of substance abuse, Myrick had a criminal record due largely to drug offenses. He was open about this history, however, attended every court date and received letters of recommendation and character from DST and the VA. Finally, on March 12, 2010, he received full physical and legal custody of Perry Jr.

“I would never have imagined having a child at 48 years old and then having custody of him and raising him on my own,” Myrick says. “It’s a big challenge, a big responsibility. I have to be there for him.”

Myrick hopes that one day Perry Jr. will also have a mother’s love in his life. But women are kind of a touchy subject for Myrick, who describes his relationships since leaving the military simply as “all bad.”

“I choose women over and over in need of somebody to rescue them,” Myrick said.

Perry Jr. and his dad recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment of their own in Santa Clara. (Photo: Sarah Scheenstra)

On two occasions in the last five years, Myrick has met women with their own careers, homes, and stability; women he describes as having “their stuff together.” Although they were both interested in him, Myrick didn’t seriously date either one. “It scared me,” he admits “They don’t need my help.”

Joyce Huckaby, Myrick’s longtime mentor, describes Myrick as self-centered one moment and selfless the next. She thinks he’s trying to save people. “I love him,” she told me, “but he needs to not have to save [someone else]. He needs to save himself.”

For now, the mother figure in his son’s life is Jacqueline Reed Jones, Myrick’s cousin and Perry Jr.’s babysitter.

“He’s a good father,” she said. “I mean, he loves his son.” But Jones added that Myrick isn’t too trusting when it comes to Perry Jr., and he doesn’t know what to do with babies.

Huckaby, too, notes that as a first-time parent, Myrick is “overwhelmed.” She believes Myrick still has a long way to go in life – “but all of us [do],” she adds.

Although he has been clean and sober for five years, Myrick still struggles with sobriety. “I’m sober, but I’m not clean in the mind,” he said at a recent 12-step meeting. He told the group that he still struggles with his old way of thinking.

“What flashes through my mind is that I’m not only living for myself now. I have a son,” he said later. But Myrick isn’t staying clean just for his son, he says, but because now it’s the only way he knows how to live.

He’s taking it a day at a time. “I know for right now, I’m not usin’ tonight,” he said recently, right before getting Perry Jr. ready for bed. So tomorrow, “I’m gonna wake up clean and sober.”

Every week, Myrick attends an average of three recovery and support group meetings for people who have struggled with substance abuse. He says it keeps him focused and healthy not to be in isolation.

“If I was using, there’s no way I could be there for [Perry Jr.],”

Myrick recognizes. He hopes that his son won’t fall into what he describes as the same “traps” of addictions and relationship problems that he has. He wants Perry Jr. to finish school and go to college. “I’m gonna be there for him,” he says.

Father and son recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Sobrato Family Living Center in Santa Clara. They’ve lived there since Oct. 1, but Myrick still doesn’t feel settled. A single cushioned chair and a broken television comprise almost the entire living room, and its walls are bare except for one picture of Perry Jr., taken soon after Myrick got custody.

“It’s a home, but it’s not home-ly,” Myrick says. He plans to decorate. In the living room, he envisions a couch and love seat, a coffee table and end tables.

Myrick is thankful for his new position at the VA hospital, but after a probationary period in the laundry department, he hopes to move into a position that gives him more interaction with veterans – perhaps an outreach counselor or at a front desk employee. He wants to be the first line of support for everyone who comes into the hospital.

“There’s more to me,” he says, “There’s more that I want — and I’m not saying this in a bad way — than (…) delivering linen.”

But right now, he’s talking to Perry Jr. as he unbuckles him from his car seat to go inside, “We did it another day,” he says.

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